After the passing away of Aurangzeb in 1707, the Mughal Empire fell into a state of disarray with weak rulers and constant intrigues. Revolts broke out all over with the Rajputs in Western India, the Marathas in Central India, carving out independent kingdoms and empires of their own. Punjab in the North West, saw the rise of the Sikhs with the creation of the Khalsa by Guru Gobind Singh to resist the Mughal Empire. By the later half of the 18th century, the Mughal Empire had shrunk considerably, while Punjab was basically a collection of 14 small confederacies called misls, of which 12 were ruled by the Sikhs while Kasur near Lahore was Muslim controlled and one ruled by an Englishman George Thomas.
Ruling over the rich fertile plains of Punjab, watered by the 5 rivers- Ravi, Chenab, Beas, Sutlej and Jhelum, these misls were constantly at conflict with each other over revenue collection, even though all of them swore allegiance to the same Khalsa fraternity. By the end of the 18th century, there were 5 powerful misls- Sukkarchakkia, Kanhayas, Nakkais, Ahluwalias and Bhangi.
And the man who would bring these disparate misls and forge a Sikh empire was born in Gujranwala on the 13th of November, 1780 to Maha Singh Sukerkechia and Raj Kaur- Maharaja Ranjit Singh.
Belonging to the Sukerkechia Misl, a bout of small pox in childhood caused him to lose an eye. Short of build, he had just the basic education in Gurmukhi. He spent more time outside in nature, learning horse riding,shooting. He had to take charge of the misl, when just 10 years old owing to his father’s ill health. Taking advantage of his age, the other Sikh Sardars backed Sahib Singh of the Bhangi misl in his revolt. However the 10 yr old Ranjit Singh ambushed these Sardars, and suppressed the revolt of Sahib Singh Bhangi. His father passed away soon after, and at just 12 yrs he became the heir to the family estate.
It was Ranjit Singh’s mother Raj Kaur who handled the affairs of the estate, helped by Diwan Lakhpat Rai. The constant intrigues between his mother, and his uncle Dal Singh, and mother in law Sada Kaur, however disheartened him. At age of 18 he took charge of Sukerkhechia Misl, aided by his manipulative mother in law Sada Kaur.
Punjab was pretty much in a state of chaos, when Ranjit Singh took charge of the misl. Ahmed Shah Abdali’s empire had collapsed, Afghanistan was split, Peshawar and Kashmir had become independent. Nawab Muzaffar Khan had captured Multan, the Pathans controlled Kasur, Attock was taken over by the Wazhrikels.This was the situation in Punjab and North West in 1790s, when Ranjit Singh took charge.
The first Sikh warrior to capture large tracts of Punjab was Jassa Singh Ahluwalia noted for his prowess on the battle field. With Abdali occupied at Panipat in 1761, he took advantage capturing Sirhind, Jagraon, Kot Isa Khan. However Jassa Singh was badly routed at the Battle of Ghalughara by Abdali, and he had to flee towards Kangra to escape the massacre.After Abdali’s death, Taimur Shah ascended the throne at Kabul in 1773, by this time however most Misls established themselves in Punjab. Taimur Shah attacked Multan, drove out the Bhangi Sardars, however they managed to reoccupy it, as well as Lahore.When Shah Zaman ascended the throne at Kabul in 1793, he vowed to bring the entire Punjab under his heel, especially Lahore.
Shah Zaman, was assisted by Nizam-Ud-Din Khan the Pathan ruler of Kasur, who was always loyal to the Afghans.Shah Zaman’s first attempt however was a failure at Hassan Abdal, where the Sikhs routed his 7000 strong army under Ahmad Shahnachi. He again attacked in 1795, snatched Rohtas from the Sukerkechia Misl, Ranjit Singh however did not lose hope, recapturing Kabul when Shah Zaman returned to Rohtas again.
Shah Zaman once again attacked in 1796, this time his target was Delhi itself, with a 3000 strong army.Sahib Singh of Patiala was one of those who joined hands with Shah Zaman, betraying his own people. The Rohillas, Wazir of Oudh, Tipu Sultan all promised assistance to Shah Zaman in his mission to capture Delhi. As the news of Shah Zaman’s invasion spread, most of the leaders of the Misls abandoned their own people, and ran to the hills for safety. He swept into Punjab without any resistance, as most of the Misl leaders had already abandoned everything and fled.It was only Ranjit Singh who decided to fight back Shah Zaman, and called a meeting of all Sikh Sardars.
However most of the Sikh Sardars, at the Sarbat Khalsa,did not support Ranjit Singh, and suggested he should also give up. They felt it was better to allow Shah Zaman into Punjab, while they could escape into the hills. It was Ranjit Singh’s mother in law Sada Kaur, who once again exhorted the Sikhs to fight against the Afghan invaders. He reorganized the forces and marched towards Lahore, taking Shah Zaman head on. His forces used surprise sorties at night to ambush the Afghans, this made them defeat em in several villages. In 1797, however Shah Zaman, had to return back to Kabul, when his brother Mahmud revolted in his absence.
Shah Zaman put Shahnachi Khan in charge of Lahore and retreated towards Kabul, with the Sikhs in hot pursuit of him. Ranjit Singh pursued Shah Zaman upto Jhelum, and routed Shahnachi Khan at Ram Nagar, his first major achievement. His victory over the Afghans, his pursuit of Shah Zaman, made him now a hero of sorts among ordinary Sikhs.Shah Zaman once again attacked Punjab in 1798, and this time the retribution was brutal.
Many villages in Punjab were burnt, the inhabitants massacred by the invading Afghans, as Shah Zaman swept inside.Once again Sada Kaur exhorted the Sikhs to fight for their honor at the Sharbat Khalsa, saying she herself would command the forces. She appealed to the Sikhs sense of pride, saying that an Afghani soldier was no match, and they had the blessings of Wahe Guru. Lahore was occupied by the Afghans in 1798, and Shah Zaman planned to attack Amritsar next. Ranjit Singh met the Afghans just 8 km from Amritsar, where a pitched battle was fought. He routed the Afghans near Amritsar, and pursued them towards Lahore, surrounding the city.
Nawaz Ud Din Khan came to aid of Shah Zaman at Shahdara, but was completely routed by the Sikh forces.Ranjit Singh created such a strong wall of resistance, that the Afghans found it impossible to move towards Delhi. He forced Shah Zaman to retreat to Kabul, and routed his forces at Gujranwala.Shah Zaman himself was deposed and blinded by his brother, it’s said he later came to seek refuge with Ranjit Singh. Ranjit Singh followed the typical Sikh policy of “take no prisoners”, as the fleeing Afghans were massacred with no mercy and looted.With the Afghans in turmoil, many prominent citizens of Lahore, like Mian Ashak Mohd,Hakim Rai, asked Ranjit Singh to take over.
Capture of Lahore
July 6, 1799- Mobiling a 25000 strong army Ranjit Singh marched towards Lahore and by July 7, the entire city was surrounded. Sada Kaur attacked the Delhi Gate while Ranjit Singh rode the walls of Lahore, and blew them apart with cannons.With minimal resistance, Ranjit Singh entered Lahore, Sahib Singh who collaborated with the Afghans fled, fearing reprisals. Though the victorious Ranjit Singh entered Lahore, he now had to face some of the Sikh Sardars jealous of his growing power.The Sikh sardars of Amritsar, Wazirabad, joined hands with Nawaz Ud Din Khan to wrest Lahore from Ranjit Singh.
Ranjit Singh however routed them, and soon established himself as the leader of all, crushing all challenges. He had to face not just the Afghans, but even fellow Sikh Sardars who were opposed to him, he defeated them all. With the capture of Lahore, Ranjit Singh soon crowned himself as Emperor at Lahore in 1801, founding the Sikh Empire. Lahore was captured by other Sikh leaders too before Ranjit Singh, however none could rule for too long there.
After conquering the whole of Punjab, Ranjit Singh, extended his empire further North, right up to Kashmir. He conquered Amritsar in 1802, and later in 1807, captured Qasur, now in Pakistan, from the Afghans. Multan was conquered by Ranjit Singh in 1818, and Kashmir was annexed later, making him the undisputed master of the entire region.
One of his major achievements was the successful battles against the Afghans, whom he managed to subdue. Dewan Mokham Chand, one of Ranjit Singh’s trusted generals, played a crucial role at the Battle of Attock, against the Afghans. Attock was one of the crucial forts, in the Khyber Pass, it was strategically important for both Afghans and Sikhs. He led the charge against the Afghans at Attock, under Dost Muhammad Khan,one of their prominent leaders.
Hari Singh Nalwa also played a crucial role in expanding Ranjit Singh’s empire, especially his battles with the Afghans. It’s said Afghan mothers would put their kids to sleep with “Hari Ragla” such was the fear he inspired in them.He kept the entire Afghan force led by Dost Mohd Khan at bay, with just a handful of forces.
Battle of Jamrud was the last major Afghan-Sikh confrontation, where Nalwa fought the Afghans till his last breath. While Nalwa died in the Battle of Jamrud, he ensured his spirited resistance, would make the Afghan forces retreat.
Other famous generals were Veer Singh Dhillon,from Gurdaspur, who captured the entire Eastern Punjab. And Zorawar Singh who conquered Ladakh, Baltistan, and went all the way up to Tibet.
Hari Singh Nalwa’s death was however a major blow to Ranjit Singh, the Sikh empire was restricted till the Khyber, cud not expand more. Under him the Sikh Empire covered the entire Punjab, the hill states, Kashmir, Gilgit, Khyber Pass and part of W.Tibet. He generally had a secular rule,where all faiths were respected, and had freedom to practice their own. His army and court, consisted of equal number of Hindu, Sikhs and Muslims, some European officers too.
Ranjit Singh also employed many European officers to train his army, in the latest techniques and strategies. He organized his army on an European model, where the cavalry was based on British system, and a French style infantry. Jean Francois Allard, was one of the French generals in Ranjit Singh’s Army, he was the one who organized the cavalry. Along with another European officer Jean Baptiste Ventura, commanded the Army in Battle of Nowshera, defeating the Afghans.
Another European officer Claude Auguste Court, was responsible for the training of Ranjit Singh’s artillerymen and establishment of arsenal. Before the Sikh Army was mainly cavalry based, under him, infantry and artillery gained importance too.
Ranjit Singh also renovated the Golden Temple, most of the intricate marble work there and the gold gilding was his contribution. He also built the Patna Sahib Gurudwara, considered one of the Paanch Takt of Sikhism. The Takht Huzur Sahib Gurudwara at Nanded was also built by Ranjit Singh, in tribute to Guru Gobind Singh. Apart from being a great warrior, Ranjit Singh was an equally wise and able ruler, provided an effective governance to his subjects.
One important measure by Ranjit Singh was banning cow slaughter in his empire. Even the European officers in his army, were expected to follow this rule. Though Ranjit Singh recruited European officers, he insisted they follow the Sikh code of conduct. They were not allowed to eat beef, smoke or cut their hair. In fact they more or less adopted the Sikh traditions, while under the service of Ranjit Singh. While a devout Sikh, Ranjit Singh, gave equal respect to Hinduism, took part in the reciting of Vedic hymns in temples. His royal priest, Raj Guru, was a Hindu, whose son later became the ruler of Gurshankar in Punab.
This was Maharaja Ranjit Singh’s empire at it’s peak, as you can see he controlled the entire North West.
His period was to the Sikhs, what Shivaji’s was to the Marathas, one of the finest eras in their history. Forging a loose confederation of Sikh Misls into a single kingdom, and expanding it into an empire, was his greatest achievement ever.